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Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery

Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery

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On December 4, 2004, while wandering through a flea market at the Tulsa, Oklahoma Fairgrounds, I came across a picture frame that held three items:

  • an American Red Cross envelope on which was written “Air map of a P.38—which was shot down by Zero in Dod [Dog] fight. The piolet [pilot] was killed and plane burned. February 1943”;
  • inside that envelope, a singed piece of a map showing the southeast tip of Papua, New Guinea;
  • a “Surrender Pass,” written in both Japanese and English.

I bought the framed group. Curious as to what the items had in common, I started by investigating the map. I contacted Joe Milazzo, a map librarian at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and he responded via e-mail: “[Your map] resembles in its construction some aerial photographic surveys…produced by Tobin.” During World War II, that company had turned out maps for the invasion of North Africa and Normandy, among other purposes. I contacted Tobin, but unfortunately, at the end of war, the Army had removed all war-related material from the company premises.

I moved on to the surrender pass. Herb Friedman, who has extensively studied war propaganda leaflets (psywarrior.com), looked over the pass and observed: “There is no code so we can’t tell when or where it was used.”

I turned to the shootdown recounted on the envelope. Though spare, the account included many details: The aircraft was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning; it was lost in February 1943; it was shot down by a Japanese Zero; and the pilot was killed. The map fragment, from the bottom edge, suggested he had been flying over New Guinea or, north of New Guinea, over the Solomon Islands.

Assuming the P-38 had been part of the U.S. Army Air Forces fleet, I found a Web site summarizing the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Missing Air Crew Reports (armyairforces.com/dbmacr.asp). In February 1943, there had been five P-38 crashes in which the pilot was killed. After sending a request to the National Archives, I received microfiche of the MACRs from the five crashes. Three of the reports referred to possible mid-air collisions, and one recounted engine trouble. Those four did not match the information on the envelope. But the fifth MACR, No. 586, was promising (see www.airspacemag.com). It told the story of a P-38 piloted by Second Lieutenant Robert P. Rist. His airplane was lost on February 13, 1943, near Bougainville—located in the Solomon Islands. The MACR states: “Last seen by Major Westbrook, 44th Ftr. Gp., with right engine smoking and Zeros on his tail.” The Zeros fit my information.

I found more details about Rist’s last few days in two books: Guadalcanal and the Origins of the Thirteenth Air Force (Army Air Force Historical Studies #35) and Bill: A Pilot’s Story by Brooklyn Harris (Graphic Press, 1995). On February 13, Rist was flying one of four P-38s (along with seven P-40s) that were escorting six B-24s on the second wave of a bombing mission to the Shortland-Buin area. Two P-38s and three P-40s had to return to Guadalcanal, leaving limited fighter cover for the bombers.

The bombers were attacked by 30 Mitsubishi Zeros and 15 Japanese float-equipped fighters, with support from heavy flak fired by naval vessels below.

The U.S. cover fighters dove into the fight. A B-24, its wing and engine on fire, dropped out of formation, and Rist escorted it toward Choiseul Island. Ten to 12 Zeros tried to finish it off. Rist shot down two Zeros, then, out of ammunition, continued to divert the Zeros by diving on them. Finally he was shot down. His efforts enabled Lieutenant Harold G. McNeese to fly his crippled B-24 to the north coast of Choiseul and ditch, which saved the lives of five crew members.

Later, I would learn that on September 10, 1943, fellow 339th Fighter Squadron pilot Darrell Cramer wrote Rist’s mother a letter that read in part: “We were greatly outnumbered and Bob dove into the whole enemy force and broke them up long enough for our force to run to safety. I saw the whole thing and it was the most courageous action I have ever seen… . I never saw Bob’s plane again but I heard him on the radio so I know he survived the original dive on the enemy but his plane was damaged… .”

Neither Rist nor his aircraft was ever recovered.

According to the Web site of the American Battle Monuments Commission (abmc.gov), Rist was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation for the latter commends Rist’s “aggressiveness, courage and devotion to duty.”

I set out to find a member of Robert Rist’s family and share information. Rist’s enlistment records, in the National Archives (aad.archives.gov/aad/), show that at the time of enlistment he lived in North Dakota. The 1930 U.S. Census records list Robert P. Rist as the son of  J. Arthur and M. Ann Rist. Robert had one brother and three sisters. The family lived in a coal mining camp in Park County.

Next I consulted the Social Security death records and found someone whose name and age matched the Census data: James Rist—born October 1893, died October 1972—could be Robert’s father. If so, that left the mother and siblings as possible survivors. M. Ann Rist had been born about 110 years earlier, so she was probably deceased. According to the Social Security records, Robert’s brother had died in 1954. And as for the sisters, if they had married, I did not know their married names.

On the Web, I connected with a genealogy group in the region where Robert’s father died: Hennepin County, Minnesota. Charlie Peasha located an obituary for James A. Rist. It gave the married names of Robert’s sisters.

I posted a query on the genealogy site, and the next day, a woman e-mailed me the address of an Ellajane Rist Knott, Robert’s youngest sister. I sent her a letter and she e-mailed me four days later.

“You surely know how to knock the wind out of my sails!” she wrote. “It was so wonderful to hear my brother’s name again. The piece you sent me describing Bob’s final moments in the air over Bougainville was moving, he died as he was just beginning life. It is wonderful to know how much he accomplished in his last hours.”

The very next day I was contacted by Bernice Salo, the wife of Robert’s nephew, who independently was searching for information on Robert and had come across one of my posts on the Internet. She e-mailed: “My husband remembers Bob as a very nice uncle, but he was only five years old when he died. When we go to air shows my husband is always very interested in the P-38’s because of his uncle Bob.”

Ellajane and Bernice shared materials with me, including newspaper clippings and photographs. I was finally able to fill in some gaps.

Robert was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on July 29, 1920. In 1926, his family moved to North Dakota. After graduating from high school there in 1938, he attended the University of North Dakota as a pre-med student, then transferred to the University of Minnesota. On January 20, 1942, he quit college and enlisted in the Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet.

According to North Dakota’s Velva Journal and other sources, Robert got primary flight training in a Ryan PT-22 Recruit, basic flight training in a Vultee BT-13 Valiant, and advanced flight training in a North American AT-6 Texan. After graduating at Arizona’s Luke Field he was shipped off to March Field in California for training in the P-38. In November, he was sent overseas, and later assigned to the 339th. That squadron sent detachments of fighters to Guadalcanal to escort bombers in attacks on Japanese bases on New Georgia, Bougainville, and the Russell Islands.

Robert flew his first mission from Guadalcanal on January 13, 1943. On February 10, he scored his first kill: a Mitsubishi Ki-21-I “Sally” heavy bomber. Three days later, he was shot down.

Because his body was not recovered, he was declared missing in action. On December 15, 1945, the War Department listed him as “expired.” Robert’s family held a memorial service two and a half months later.

Today, Robert is survived by two of his three sisters: Elizabeth Rist Owren of New Jersey and Ellajane in Minnesota. In her e-mails to me, Ellajane helped bring Robert to life in a way that written archives could not. “So many years ago and his memory is still as indelible,” she wrote. “He was such a sweet, compassionate man.”

The one mystery I never solved concerned the framed assembly of items I’d found at the flea market: Who had preserved them, eventually providing me with a link to the life and death of Robert P. Rist?

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